Perhaps you’ve heard the parable of the three bricklayers. Coming across a group of masons at work on the roadside, a traveler asks what each is doing. “Laying brick,” says the first, remaining at his work. “Constructing a wall,” the second replies with a shug. The third wipes his brow and answers, “Building a cathedral.”
The story hinges, of course, on the idea of vision. Vision is that essential bond that connects the duties we are asked to perform with the aims those duties are designed to advance. Vision tells us where we are going, and invests our work with meaning and significance.
Fired by a clear and compelling vision of the future, the intern no longer makes copies simply because he is low man on the totem pole. Instead, he is providing a service, however routine, that facilitates the distribution of resources to those in need.
Motivated by a meaningful sense of mission, the receptionist answers phones not just to earn a paycheck, but to further production of a product beneficial to the public.
“A shared vision is not an idea,” writes Peter Senge in his seminal book, The Fifth Discipline, “It is not even an important idea such as freedom. It is, rather, a force in people’s hearts, a force of impressive power.”
Vision is, in many ways, what raises a job to a calling. It is the difference between a workman laying brick and a workman building a cathedral.
A compelling vision of the future is also what makes achievement possible.
Consider again the work of the three masons. The first lays a brick, lays another, lays a third. He can churn out product aplenty, but he can achieve almost nothing because his work, in his eyes, is nothing more than an endless string of bricks.
The second enjoys a much greater capacity for achievement because of his wider scope of purpose. He can admire the craftsmanship of the walls he has built, can appreciate the attention to detail that his efforts showcase.
But only the third finds emotional resonance in his work. He can take pride in finishing the sanctuary where the faithful will pray, can feel satisfaction in setting out the courtyard where children will gather. He can know, at the end of a long day, that he has accomplished something of value.
Achievement requires a standard by which success and failure will be judged. Vision provides that definition of what is actually being accomplished.
Vision does not and cannot change the work that is done. The masons are all using the same bricks, after all. But it does change the context in which that work is pursued.
It changes how work feels as nothing else can. And without it the concept of achievement is a pale and empty abstraction.